When is a chair not a chair?


Having to cut down a dying, 90-foot tree in my front yard yesterday was a sad event. But it brought to mind a mixed media artwork I created several years ago entitled ‘Life after Death’ that touches upon the cycle of life.

Untitled (wood the life and death)
Life after Death   Lilianne Milgrom  Wooden doll chair and ceramic trunk

Looking at this artwork reminded me that I often use chairs as an evocative motif in my art. Discarded chairs by the side of the road have always saddened me for some reason. The chair is a uniquely human object – an empty chair is a powerful signifier of the absence of people just as a chair can elevate the person sitting on it. A chair can take on human qualities and convey a wide range of emotions.

Telephone still life (2) - Copy
The Office, still life   Lilianne Milgrom  Acrylic on canvas
Virtual angel VIII
Amen  Lilianne Milgrom (Learn more about this installation here)

Many artists have used chairs as a conceptual vehicle to make political statements. One of my favorite artists, Ai Wei Wei, created a series of works whose fundamental building block was a simple wooden stool that was symbolic of China’s past.


By re-configuring the stool to make it non-functional, he challenges China’s push for modernization at the expense of its traditions. By using multiple stools, the artist also visually expresses the loss of the individual in China’s rapidly industrializing society.  

Grapes by Ai Weiwei
Grapes, a spiky cluster of wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), is part of Ai Weiwei’s repurposed furniture series

Another famous conceptual artist, Christo (1935-2009), renowned for wrapping buildings, bridges, and even islands in swaths of fabric, similarly wrapped a chair to distort its purpose and to ‘reveal through concealment’ according to art critic David Bourdon.

christo wrapped chair
Christo  Wrapped chair

One of the first artists to use ready-made objects as art was Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). He is credited with being one of the fathers of modern art in so far as he upended all conventional notions of what constitutes Art. In the example below he uses a simple kitchen stool as a pedestal to elevate a bicycle wheel into an object worthy of being called Art. When it was first displayed it was met with outrage and incomprehension. Today it is an iconic symbol of Modern Art.

marcel duchamp bicycle wheel
Marchel Duchamp Bicycle Wheel (Recreated 1951 from a 1913 original)

At the Milan Design Fair this year, an 8-meter high installation paying homage to Italian designer Gaetano Pesce’s Up Armchair, was installed in the central Piazza del Duomo in Milan. Fifty years ago, it was conceived as an industrial design project that heavily implied his support for women to start standing up for themselves and to fight for equal rights.

Gaetano Pesce UP ARMCHAIR


Check out the latest New York exhibition ‘The Chair’ at The Future Perfect. In a similar vein, look at all the chairs on show at Brooklyn’s newly launched Object & Thing, an art fair blending art and design with a non-curatorial approach to the 200-plus gallery objects.

chairs brooklyn Object & Thing

So next time you plop your behind into a chair, realize that a chair is not necessarily only a chair..

Artist: Keith Haring

5 thoughts on “When is a chair not a chair?

  1. Jennie Schoenfeld April 30, 2019 / 8:16 am

    Thanks for yet another thought-provoking article.

    I immediately thought of Van Gogh’s chairs, which are like portraits of Vincent and Paul Gauguin, and suggest how Vincent sees their differences, and are also about being present or absent.

    Vincent’s Chair with His Pipe Arles: December, 1888, (London, National Gallery) and

    Gauguin’s Armchair Arles: December, 1888, (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum)

    Watch the Youtube footage of 50 manga chairs designed by nendo for Friedman Benda to add to this discussion!

    Keep us all thinking please, Lilianne!
    Best Regards,

  2. Elvia May 2, 2019 / 12:24 am

    Amazing imagination Lilianne.

    • liliannemilgrom May 2, 2019 / 12:37 am

      Thanks, Elvia!

  3. Maruja May 3, 2019 / 2:03 pm

    I really enjoy this article ! A chair is stating our presence our place ….my father’s present to my kids was a chair ! We all choose the same chair to sit at the table.! It is amazing as I am driving around this last few days, I have come across chairs being thrown away. And made me think what is the story of who sat in that chair Thank you Lilianne for the article

    • liliannemilgrom May 3, 2019 / 2:09 pm

      I love that your father gave your kids a chair as a gift! There is something very emotional about chairs, I agree.

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